Award-winning docu ‘Kano’ on DVD in May
Five years of hard work were amply rewarded when the documentary “Kano: An American and His Harem” won top prizes in Amsterdam, Cinemanila and Urian.
But awards were the last thing on the minds of the duo behind “Kano,” director Coreen “Monster” Jimenez and editor-producer Mario Cornejo.
“Kano” tells the story of bemedalled American soldier and Vietnam War veteran Victor Pearson, who escaped, in the 1970s, to an isolated and impoverished barrio in Negros Occidental, where he shacked up with hundreds of Filipino women until the law caught up with him in 2001, and he was slapped with more than 80 counts of rape charges.
When Jimenez and Cornejo first embarked on this journey, they didn’t realize the complexity of Pearson’s story—filled as it was with surprising twists and turns every step of the way.
“It could have been a human rights story or a commentary on our judicial system,” they said when they visited the Inquirer office for a special screening.
Instead, Jimenez and Cornejo stumbled on a rather unsettling story of a different kind of “family”—disparate and desperate individuals who somehow find themselves forming a bond in spite of (or maybe because of) the most trying and troubling of circumstances.
Cornejo and Jimenez, two of the honorees in last December’s Inquirer Indie Tribute, pointed out that docus are not as celebrated as (narrative) feature films in our country.
But they persist. “Creative documentaries express the vision of a filmmaker,” Jimenez explained. Cornejo noted: “Docus are harder to film than narrative fiction.”
“Mario and I are pursuing both a docu and a narrative film now,” Jimenez related. “Whichever project gets funded first will get produced first.” (Their debut film, “Big Time,” is a Cinemalaya winner.)
In the meantime, there is a “Kano” campus tour in the works. A screening at the De La Salle University is scheduled this month. “We also hope to start a slow-burn type of campus tour starting in Laoag in July,” Jimenez said.
They are releasing “Kano” on DVD in May. “I added a lot of deleted scenes,” said Jimenez. “The DVD release also got an R-18 rating. We are distributing it ourselves. It will be available online and in selected bookstores.”
Jimenez and Cornejo believe the next big struggle for indie filmmakers will be to reach the audience in whatever venue or format is most accessible.
Did you expect everything that you discovered while making the docu?
Coreen Jimenez: Nothing happened as we expected. At first, we wanted to do the story of a community. I had a feeling Pearson was popular in that area. He was able to keep the secret for 20 years. We did not realize how big it was. It trumped all our expectations.
Mario Cornejo: We thought it was about a community that allowed this crime to happen. But we found out some of the girls were from other barrios three hours away. Essentially, there was a recruitment call. If you brought a girl, you got P350. If a girl stayed with him, she got a cash allowance of P1,000 a month.
CJ: When he got arrested, the police found packets of Viagra in his home.
MC: He had a vasectomy after the birth of his daughter Corrina, but apparently that did not affect his sex drive.
How is his daughter now?
CJ: We did not include her in the docu because it might complicate matters; she ended up with one of Pearson’s jail guards.
MC: She is happily married now and divides her time between the US and the Philippines. We could not put it in, but, by all accounts, Victor seems to have been a good father. He told us that he had such a terrible childhood, he never wanted a child. But when he became a father, he was determined to do a good job of it. He was strict with her. He read to her every night. But he couldn’t wait for her to turn 16.
CJ: When Corrina turned 16, he sent her to the US on a scholarship.
To get her out of the way?
CJ: Yes, actually. Literally!
MC: He was promiscuous even when his daughter was around, but after Corrina left for the US, wala na. Nonstop parties—everyone was running around naked!
Why did you decide to do a docu on it?
CJ: It had all the elements of a good film. And I found Pearson articulate.
Was he charming?
MC: He was extremely smart.
CJ: Mario did most of the talking. I felt that since I was female, he looked at me differently, addressed me differently. We often argued.
MC: I would engage him in small talk first—for three hours!
CJ: Then once he was ready I would ask the hard questions—about power and religion.
MC: He loved talking about big issues. It was kind of interesting that when she talked to him, he became somewhat antagonistic.
CJ: I guess I put him on the defensive.
Why the recurring images of the MassKara festival and the carnival?
CJ: I knew I wanted the carnival. I also wanted it shot in a weird way.
MC: We worked with commercial cinematographers. They would set up the tripod and then we would kick it. (Laughs) They hated it.
CJ: The roller-coaster scenes were challenging to shoot. Our cinematographer almost fell once! The visuals are a lot like Pearson’s story.
MC: As if there’s something intrinsically wrong. That’s why we shot it that way. Even the editing was skewered. In the middle of an interview, we would cut away. Her idea was for everything to be a little off; to feel slightly unsettling.
You did not follow a script while shooting?
CJ: We did not want a script. We do videos, genre docus, and commercials for a living. In our line of work, everything is planned and set. This docu was my reaction to all that.
How many hours of footage did you shoot?
CJ: 200 hours.
MC: But we only used 80 minutes.
What will you do with the rest of the material?
MC: This docu could have been many things. As the director, she had to choose where to take the story. During the editing, she decided that it was a family story. About a weird, dysfunctional family.
CJ: Since I wanted a family story, we had to omit the other interviewees—the psychologists, the feminists, the politicians. It was inefficient and expensive, but we had to go through that to arrive at this story.
Has Pearson seen the docu?
CJ: He has, but we did not get to talk to him about it. Langging (one of the wives) called us. She gave us a grade of eight and according to her, Pearson gave us a nine.
How many nights did you agonize over this film?
CJ: I’m not a cry baby, but it was painful to do. It was hell. It was not just the lack of control. It is because, in a docu, you deal with real people. Whatever you say or do affects them. It bothered me a little. It was hard because it never leaves you. The women call me all the time.
MC: They feel very close to her.
CJ: I had to keep my distance until the film was finished. Now, I help them. But during the shoot, I could not. It was not right.
Do they need help constantly?
CJ: That was the only reason they stayed with him. They were not in love with the guy. They used sex as currency. It was not a normal life. So I asked Mama, one of the women, why she stayed with him. Mama said: “If you think this is a hard life, let me tell you that it is harder to be so poor that you can only eat dirt. I have experienced that.” It was not her choice. For her, it was the only way out of poverty. She said she actually considers herself lucky that she met Pearson.
MC: Mama kept saying that we could never understand them because we had never been in their situation.
Have Pearson’s sisters in the US seen the film?
CJ: Not yet. I do not want to send a screener. I want to watch it with them.
What was the reaction of foreign audiences to the docu?
MC: There were different reactions in different countries.
CJ: The Swedes were fascinating. They are a lot like us—very polite and shy. But the common question was: Why do Filipinos laugh so much?
MC: Why do we smile even when times are hard?
CJ: I told the foreign viewers during the open forum: I am smiling right now, even though I’m nervous. Filipinos smile at everything. We are a happy bunch.
What are your plans for the docu?
CJ: We have sold it to several TV stations abroad: Israel, Sweden, Denmark. But they asked for a 52-minute cut.
MC: It is easier to sell documentaries abroad. A lot of foreign TV stations have a one-hour slot for docus.
CJ: We want to show it around the country, too. We plan to release the DVD in May.
MC: We have to expand the public’s notion of a docu beyond what they usually see on TV. This is a creative docu. I love the docus of Ditsi Carolino—“Bunso,” “Riles.” She is a national treasure.
CJ: Even Ditsi, in spite of her consistent output, has a hard time looking for screening venues.
Do you want a local theatrical run?
CJ: I am not sure if that should be our goal.
MC: We did well at Fully Booked.
CJ: We had a full house during the Cinemalaya screenings at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and also at Greenbelt cinema.
So why make docus when it seems to be a thankless job?
CJ: We do not do it for the awards. It is far from glamorous. I have always wanted to be an investigative journalist and I love cinema. With docus I can combine film and journalism in one art form.
How do you make sure that you will not be perceived as sensationalist and exploitative? That you are not taking Pearson’s side?
CJ: I am not taking his side. But some viewers got upset. I had a few walkouts in Amsterdam.
MC: A few Western women got angry. I acknowledge that it is a sensitive topic. But our point was not to be judgmental. Every time we talked, I found Victor charismatic. I had to remind myself every time of charges he was facing.
How is Pearson now?
CJ: His situation somewhat improved in Muntinlupa (national penitentiary). He put up his own nipa hut there.
MC: When he was in the provincial jail, he stayed in a cramped cell.
Have you visited him recently?
CJ: Our last visit was in February of last year. We wanted to know how he was. He did not look well. His health was deteriorating. It seemed he was resigned to the fact that he is going to stay in prison for the rest of his life.
MC: When he was in the provincial jail, he seemed more optimistic. Now, even though his living conditions in Muntinlupa have improved, it seemed to us that he had lost hope.
What is the latest on Mary Joy, the only one who pursued a case against Pearson?
CJ: She is now abroad. The DSWD [Department of Social Welfare and Development] took care of her, to make sure that she would not recant her story.
But she had to overcome pressure from her parents, right?
MC: All the time. Some of the other girls were brought to Victor by their own parents. It was an eye-opener for us.
CJ: Pearson’s arresting officer told us that what we did was so dangerous. We were not aware of the danger then.
Won’t the US embassy intervene?
MC: I think the Americans have washed their hands off him.
CJ: They visit him once a year on Christmas, to give him magazines and chocolates.
Can Pearson get out of jail if Mary Joy drops the case?
CJ: The lawyers give us a different answer every time. The case has reached the Supreme Court. But this is the story that never ends talaga.